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You are currently viewing Panis Quadratus: Ancient Bread of Pompeii

In 79 AD Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in ash and preserving them for centuries. Amid the ruins of these cities, archaeologists uncovered ovens containing carbonised loaves of bread called panis quadratus. These were large round sourdough breads, segmented into eight pieces, with a hole in the center of the loaf. They often had an identifying stamp imprinted on the crust and before baking, each bread had a cord tied around its “waist.”

Experimental archaeologist Farrell Monaco is an expert on panis quadratus, and her research was recently featured in Popular Science. In Monaco’s award-winning blog, Tavola Mediterranea, she has written on this bread in depth and also explored fascinating ancient sourdough leavens; e.g. starter made from beans and dried blocks of starter that seem as predictable as instant yeast is today.

Mount Vesuvius was originally believed to have erupted on August 24th but a recent discovery has pushed the date to October 24th. Either way, with the fall season about to start, it seemed like a good time to try this hearty whole wheat bread. Panis quadratus indeed proved to be delicious with soup made from end-of-summer garden vegetables and chickpeas.

Perfect wedge of bread to go with soup

In her research, Farrell Monaco notes that panis quadratus dough likely weighed 1.3 kilograms or 4 Roman libre and it was probably made with “common wheat” or triticum aestivum. The bread might have also included parsley and seeds like nigella, poppy, sesame, fennel, and anise.

The bread was segmented before baking possibly so it could be easily torn for sharing. Monaco discovered that pressing a thin rod down through the dough made the final bread look more like the ancient images of the bread and the carbonized loaves themselves than scoring did.

Nice pull-apart segments but the string disappeared a bit in the bread

She also also postulates that the cord helped people carry the bread or may have kept the loaf size more uniform when baking. Personally, I’ve found dough quite difficult to restrain, so I lean toward the carrying hypothesis, more than the uniformity one. I also wonder if perhaps the string was another cutting tool. I was able to use my cooking string to partially cut the bread on the horizontal, so I had the option of 8 big pieces, 16 smaller pieces, or 8 top pieces and one large flatbread base.

Lovely crumb and also easy to tear on the horizontal because of the string indentation

With Monaco’s analysis of the carbonized loaves, the images of the bread in frescos, and the writings of Pliny the Elder, we can bake an approximation of this ancient bread

Pliny the Elder was a prolific writer and military commander who died attempting to rescue people in the aftermath of the volcanic eruption. Here are a couple of his statements on bread and fermentation that still resonate 2000 years later:

“The excellence of the finest kinds of bread depends principally on the goodness of the wheat,” and “Those persons who are dieted upon fermented bread are stronger in body.” The Natural History

I certainly was excited to try this bread using good wheat and fermentation. I looked at several recipes online and formulated a very seeded version that still has a final dough weight of about 1.3 kg. I used fresh, home-milled red fife wheat flour and ripe sourdough starter. Compared with Monaco’s recipe in the Popular Science article, I used more seeds, more salt, some honey, and I baked the bread mostly covered and at a higher temperature.

If you don’t have a large baking vessel like the Spun Iron Cloche, the Breadtopia Combo Baker that I used, or a Dutch oven with about 10″ diameter on the inside, you can bake the dough on a baking stone with a steam pan. You could also use a standard baking sheet, in which case, I suggest you follow the baking instructions on the Tavola Mediterranea blog (lower temp). And a final option would be to scale the dough down and bake it in a regular round cloche. For example, you can multiply each ingredient by 0.75 to get the dough to add up to approximately 1000g instead of 1338g.

I fed my starter the night before and surrounded it with a bowl of ice cubes so it would be ready in the morning rather than the middle of a warm summer night.

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